Two Black, Democratic women are the face of change in Cobb, Gwinnett counties
By David Pendered
Two Black women, both Democrats, have changed the political dynamics in Cobb and Gwinnett counties in the 2020 election cycle. One is an incumbent county commissioner campaigning for the position of county chair; one promotes candidates and the GOTV effort as head of the county’s Democratic Party.
Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid is campaigning for chair of the county’s Board of Commissioners. Cupid was first elected in 2012, to serve a southern district that includes Austell. She grew up in East Cobb and said no poll worker there ever asked her what party she wanted to vote – it was presumed all voters wanted a GOP ballot.
Gwinnett County Democratic Party Chair Bianca Keaton has helped draft Democrats to contest almost every seat on the local and state ballot. The energy level she brings is evident in the appearance at a fundraiser last week of party stalwart James Carvelle and U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who serves as Joe Biden’s national campaign co-chair and was Keaton’s boss when she worked on Capitol Hill.
Cupid and Keaton have come to the forefront at a potential tipping point for two of the five counties that comprise the legacy of metro Atlanta. Historically white, affluent if not wealthy, Cobb and Gwinnett have grown beyond early roles as havens from the urbanizing Atlanta of the 1970s into edge cities with their own cultural dynamics:
- Gwinnett County: “The county’s rapidly growing school system boasts that its students speak more than 100 languages.” – Excerpt From: Richard E. Cohen, James A. Barnes. The Almanac of American Politics 2020. Apple Books.
- Cobb County: Up to 41% of residents along I-75 are foreign born; up to 28 percent of residents over age 5 years speak English “less than well.” – Analysis of Census data by the Atlanta Regional Commission.
Cupid and Keaton worked together nearly three years in Cupid’s district commission office. Cupid was looking for a staff person. Keaton came highly recommended from the county’s human resources office. Cupid determined that Keaton’s strengths were such that she offered Keaton the job.
The two gelled, have stayed in touch after Keaton resigned to be closer to her husband and child in Gwinnett, and have encouraged each other to push the bubble – Cupid to seek higher office, Keaton to mobilize.
Their outlooks represent the change in political dynamics that are unfolding in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. The durability of these changes may become more apparent after the counting of ballots cast Nov. 3.
Stepping down after eight years as a district commissioner is bittersweet, Cupid said. Lessons in camaraderie she’s learned while serving as the lone Democratic district on an otherwise GOP board will help her efforts as commission chair to help district commissioners serve residents they both represent, she said.
- “There are so many projects in progress right now. It’s bittersweet to know I won’t be in a position to lead as they are actualized. Sometimes you have to get out of the way for someone else to lead. They can bring new perspective.
- “This gives me energy to bring a new perspective to the chairmanship. I’ve served as a district commissioner, and I know what it’s like to know that you have a partner on the board who understands. That would be one of my goals – ‘Yes, you are the district commissioner, but you are doing it with someone who has served at the district level’….
- “At the end of the day, the people of Cobb County share an interest with the people of District 4. They want a secure community. They want an attractive community. They want to feel they have a future in Cobb, a bright future in Cobb. … At the end of the day, we may differ ideologically, but local government, local politics, is about serving the people where they are.”
Service levels of public transit remains a concern in a county that operates its own transit system, CobbLinc, which links with MARTA and Connect Douglas. Transit projects are to receive $4.6.million of the $750 million to be collected if voters approve the 1% special purpose local option sales tax referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot. The transit sum includes $3.6 million for transit facilities, and $1 million for sidewalk repair and installation along transit routes.
- “We lose out on developments that follow transit, and the millennials who want to live where transit’s an option. We are losing an ability to grow as a county, and impeding the ability of individuals to grow – when they can’t take transit to school or to a doctor – when we are not providing a robust transit option. … The community wanted Sunday transit and got that last year – in the 30th year of Cobb transit. In the southern part of the county, people want to see transit be more reliable, with buses arriving on time and improving the ridership experience – which is different from what’s in the Cumberland area and different from up toward Kennsaw State University.
- “I used to talk at Georgia State [where she received her law degree], and there was a student who was from East Cobb and was very frustrated at not having access to transit. It limited his opportunity to take classes at Georgia State. Studies show over half the county has expressed interest in transit. But it’s not supported by the elected leadership.”
While Gwinnett County is accurately known for the diversity of its population, the diversity is not evident in elected officeholders, Keaton said. This realization prompted her to agree to recruit candidates and mobilize voters.
- Before the 2018 election, “There has never been a person of color on the county commission. There have never been mayors of color. Only a handful of municipal leaders were of color. Ever. In history. None of them had been black women. I got curious and started digging. What did the racial balance look like? What did a better gender balance look like? Gender was what you’d expect. But racial balance was so far off that it signaled something, which was that people of color are not running for office, nor are they seeing themselves in the political process. For Gwinnet to have carried this banner for being racially diverse for decades, there was no diversity in public office.”
Keaton considered campaigning for public office. Cupid had suggested the idea, and Keaton knew first-hand the impact office holders can make. Keaton had worked six years on Capitol Hill, with Richmond and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D.-Penna.). Keaton decided her aptitude and interest, at this time, lay in mobilizing Gwinnett’s Democrats.
- “I saw that if I got involved in the party, I could do what I’ve trained to do, which is help great talent do what they do. I also can identify talent. … When I was asked to be chair, the ask was predicated on more professionalizing the entity and creating a more robust, campaign style of operation. … One think I’ll point to is how my sister chair in Forsyth County has pushed through the idea of what a party looks like when you haven’t won for a long time. What does the work even look like. For folks who’ve had training in battlegrounds, it’s fierce competition for what they believe. Like the people who got involved for Obama in ’08 and ’12. Our work is to create more people to soldier through….
- “When I first said our goal was to raise $175,000, there were folks who snickered and laughed. I pushed forward anyway and we are having success. I know I have the ability, the persistence, to pull some of this stuff off. To put the pieces in place to make all this stuff possible. I know Congressman Richmond is busy. The person I called wasn’t him. But I know how to get stuff on the schedule. … For some people, politics is a sport, in the sense that they are entertained. But it’s not like that. You have to move with conviction everyday. Just like what it feels to have lost something. I am going to leave it all down on the field.”